Celtic tiger threatens mystical Tara, where kings were once crowned

<preform>A battle is raging between old Ireland, steeped in history, and the modern nation over plans for a motorway where high kings once were crowned. David McKittrick </b></i>reports</preform>
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The Independent Online

Claire Oakes is plainly right to say there is something unique about Tara, the spot near Dublin whose thousands of years of history caused W B Yeats to call it "probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland".

Claire Oakes is plainly right to say there is something unique about Tara, the spot near Dublin whose thousands of years of history caused W B Yeats to call it "probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland".

She regularly travels to the graceful hill in Co Meath from her home two miles away. "My special time for going up is at dusk," she said. "There's a great sense of being connected to all that's gone before us, over the millennia. You can see that a lot of people recognise something within the land itself - they walk around more reverently.

"When it's clear it's amazing how far you can see, but when the prominences in the distance are shrouded in haze it's quite magical and mystical. It changes with the seasons, but it's always pretty wonderful."

An hour spent on Tara is enough to confirm that Mrs Oakes is right when she talks about the sense of timelessness there, a sense that has made it important to countless generations. Its unusual geography comes as a surprise, for at its heart is a modest hill whose summit suddenly offers, by some idiosyncrasy of topography, sweeping views of perhaps half of the Irish Republic's 26 counties.

Thousands of years of history, pre-history and legend have gone into the history of Tara, as a place and as an idea, so that it has been described as the centre of the Celtic world. One of its numerous legends is that it served as an entrance to the "Otherworld". Here high kings of Ireland gathered with their warriors to perform a ceremony to ward off attacks coming from this netherland.

Today, however, another set of people's priority is to seek, not a gateway to another world, but more prosaically access to the city of Dublin, where they have to get to work every day. These are the commuters who face the drag into Dublin from towns beyond Tara, spending hours each day crawling along inadequate roads not far from the hallowed site. They too are plainly right when they say they need an improved transport system.

The prosperity brought by the Celtic tiger has caused phenomenal house price rises in Dublin, leading thousands of families to move out of the city to fast-expanding towns such as Navan, Kells and Dunshaughlin. The Republic of Ireland has been furiously building and upgrading roads to get this new generation of commuters in and out of Dublin every day. Now they want to build a motorway, the M3, close to the hill of Tara.

Over the past year fierce arguments have raged over whether ancient heritage or transport infrastructure should take precedence. Most local commuters are enthusiastic about the road, but the heritage people are horrified. Ancient and modern perspectives have been pitted against each other in a battle which says much about Irish values, posing the question of whether a nation can undergo extensive modernisation without shedding its irreplaceable past.

The government is to announce a decision on the motorway in the next few weeks. It will probably say the new road should go ahead, though some warn that, if it does, the whole project will face legal challenges that could mean years of delay.

The Irish have, without question, a deep sense of history and a tendency to regard it as a living thing. In the letters columns of Dublin newspapers, for example, scarcely a day goes by without correspondence on issues such as the 1798 rebellion and the 1916 rising. Yet the constant re-examination of history has of late taken second place to a sense of a country revelling in new-found prosperity. Politicians no longer continually invoke the past as they once did: politics is now conducted much more in the here and now. It is a country where materialism often prevails over the old ways. This was particularly seen in the authorities' decision not to call a national day of mourning for the Pope.

Certainly the biggest political party, Fianna Fail, which has been in power for years, succeeds by convincing voters that they are the soundest managers of the generally booming economy. But they and other parties are, more thoughtful observers say, fairly limited once they stray from the basic financial fundamentals: "The vision thing" is noticeably lacking.

The heritage lobby, in common with many Catholic clergy, allege that the pursuit of materialist goals is changing Irish society and culture for the worse, and is thus endangering Tara.

It was William Wilde, father of Oscar, who perhaps best conjured up the glory of Tara. He wrote: "Here sat in days of yore kings with golden crowns upon their heads, warriors with brazen swords in their hands; bards and minstrels with their harps; druids with their oak-leaf crowns; learned historians; wise brehons and subtle lawyers; smiths, artificers, charioteers, huntsmen, architects; the chess-players and cup-bearers, whose places are all specified in the ancient annals relating to Tara."

Its significance as a place of political and religious importance is dated as early as 4,000BC, around the beginning of the Neolithic period. It was in use right through the Stone Age. A few thousand years later it became the seat of power in Ireland, with more than a hundred Irish high kings crowned there, reaching a peak in the early centuries after Christ. A particular stone on Tara was said to roar in approval when a new and worthy high king touched it.

No survey of Irish legend is complete without St Patrick, and he is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at their most powerful site. They say he took on and defeated Laoghaire, king of Tara, and the druids who organised feasts "of pagan worship with many incantations and magic, rites and other superstitious acts of idolatry". Thus, legend has it, did Christianity win out in Ireland.

In the next 1,500 years or so Tara was linked with major historical events such as monster meetings held by the Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, and the 1798 rising against the British.

The proposed new motorway will not carve through the hill of Tara itself, but some of its supporters have accused the heritage lobby of saying or implying that it will. The anti-motorway people claim they have been cast as being against all innovation and improvement, insisting they are not against a new road but want it to curve away from Tara.

One of the big arguments is whether Tara should be regarded simply as a hill or as a much larger landscape. Anti-motorway campaigners argue that the mount cannot be viewed in isolation, and is part of an integrated archaeological and historical landscape, containing thousands of years of material. A campaigning archaeologist, Joe Fenwick, explained: "Most of the monuments in the surrounding landscape are invisible because they are below the plough zone. But Tara isn't just confined to the hill - it's part of a much wider vista, as a cultural landscape."

His fear is that a new motorway would attract more and more housing and industrial buildings along its path, making this, at present, reasonably tranquil area busier and busier, to the detriment of Tara. The roads authorities have already explored the route of the planned motorway by digging test trenches, which have turned up 28 sites described as being of definite or potential archaeological interest. The heritage lobby says this indicates that the entire area is rich in buried historical material.

An opposing view came from a local politician: "The argument put forward by the archaeologists with regard to the richness of the area is a bit of a myth. There is no road in this country whose construction has not yielded up something of historical value."

The heritage lobby responded through a group of expatriates who wrote: "A four-lane motorway through the Tara landscape will destroy the integrity and beauty of a priceless culture treasure. It is akin to defacing a national icon."

The competing claims of modern life were set out by local chambers of commerce who stressed the present rather than the past. One declared: "This is a living, breathing modern landscape with a 21st century community living and working there. We are not talking here of a mummified world."

Another said: "No one is rejoicing at having to build a motorway but until families stop expanding, houses stop being built and people stop needing to go to work, there is no other option." Kells chamber of commerce has put up posters in the town with the slogan: "Sick of commuting four hours per day? - support the M3!"

Everyone agrees that the present road system is inadequate and unsatisfactory. Several towns are suffering from chronic congestion, blighted daily by bottlenecks and jams. Safety is also an issue, with existing towns experiencing an accident rate of one and a half times the national average.

An outspoken politician, Jackie Healy-Rae, put the case for putting transport before archaeology bluntly. "People are crying out for a motorway," he said. "Men will be out with tablespoons scraping the ground instead of large excavators making a road that is badly needed." Another politician said dismissively that too much importance was being given to "pots and pans".

The debate has descended into bitter exchanges in the media and at parliamentary committees. Rival petitions and surveys have been produced, and disparaged by the other side. Pro-motorway people complain of an "incessant barrage of misinformation and propaganda," accusing the heritage lobby of "a massive and terrible hoax" by "hoodwinking" people into thinking the proposed motorway goes through the hill itself. This is hotly denied by their opponents who say they themselves have been subjected to "a fusillade of abuse".

The issue has gone to the highest level, to Bertie Ahern, who as Taoiseach, might be described as the modern equivalent of a high king.

He said lately of his distant predecessors: "I am not trying to upset the kings. If I had known that they were there I would have gone around them." As one correspondent observed, it was not clear if he meant he would have canvassed the kings to win their approval, or would have favoured a detour to leave them undisturbed.

He displayed his pro-motorway views clearly enough, however, when he added: "I don't know who was there five thousand years ago, and I'm sure they were very significant people, but somewhere along the way you have to come to an end of a process."

His words signalled that fast-moving, modern Ireland is gradually coming to prevail over the traditional reverence for the past. The purists in this case may thus be doomed to defeat, with today's politics set to win out over yesterday's history.

But it has been an informative and educational debate which may cause some at least to question whether more could be done to protect the Irish heritage, and wonder whether the competing claims of the new Ireland and the old could be better balanced.